YS Choi – still a champion

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

As an amateur boxer he fought 100 times (winning 95) and never got knocked down. In business and in life YS Choi, who retired last week from his post as President of Lotte Duty Free, has always shown the same indomitable spirit.

Here in Seoul the local travel retail industry is still reeling from Mr Choi’s sudden departure, announced last week just days after he headed Lotte’s triumphant opening of its new stores at Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta International Airport .

At next week’s Trinity Forum, The Moodie Report was planning a surprise for Mr Choi – the presentation of an Outstanding Contribution to the Travel Retail Industry Award.

Because of last week’s announcement that became impossible, so last night over dinner with my long-time industry friend I had the very great pleasure of presenting the award to him personally. He deserved the Trinity audience of 500 but the one-on-one moment was just as special, I think, for him as it was for me.

The personable Korean has been an ever-present force in the country’s travel retail business since 1978, playing an almost incalculable role in building the Lotte Duty Free brand name and reputation in the industry.

Lotte might be a powerhouse today – with sales of US$0.9 billion last year, its flagship downtown store is the world’s most successful downtown duty free shop – but in the early 1980s it was nothing of the sort. YS Choi spent countless difficult days trying to convince European luxury brands to make themselves available through Lotte’s stores.

“It was never easy,” he recalled in a landmark interview I did with him in 2006. “At that time very few people from Korea travelled abroad, so it was very difficult for me.” What was your role in those days? I asked. “Merchandising, marketing, sales and everything – I worked in every sector,” he said with a laugh. “That is how I came to know all the big guys.”

His honorary retirement, done in a very Korean way, has saddened him but he’s too strong and determined a character to remain down. One suspects, and hopes, that YS Choi is not lost to the travel retail industry.

“I never got knocked down,” he reminds me with his trademark chuckle, “not in my character!”

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